US Defense Secretary Goes to Iraq on Surprise Visit
Alex GORKA | 21.04.2016 | WORLD / Middle East

US Defense Secretary Goes to Iraq on Surprise Visit

On April 18, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter arrived in Iraq for an unannounced visit to hold a series of meetings, including with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and top US military commanders, about ways to ramp up the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants.

The US is going to bring in more resources into the country, including 200 additional US troops and several Apache attack helicopters. The US-led coalition has used the Al Dhafra air base for airstrikes against Islamic State, as well as for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions. More recently, a squadron of Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft has been sent to Incirlik air base in Turkey.

Some of the decisions on increasing the footprint in Iraq could become clearer in the coming days or weeks. President Obama will be in Saudi Arabia on April 21 to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. The military campaign against the IS militants is an issue on the agenda. Carter has said, the US wants Persian Gulf nations to help Iraq rebuild its cities once IS militants are defeated.

Carter is also looking for an update on the fight to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. On March 24 Iraqi forces began an offensive to retake the Islamic State stronghold. 

Starting with attacks on towns south of the city, the campaign’s goal is to effect a «slow strangulation» of IS in Mosul, much as in the successful effort against the militants in Ramadi last year.

The Defense Secretary’s visit shows the operation to retake Mosul won’t be an easy walk. On the one hand, Obama has emphasized many times that it will be an Iraqi-led effort. The administration does not want US forces to be deployed in great numbers. On the other hand, anything else but a comprehensive victory will further damage the US image as a country able to effectively assist Iraq in its war effort. Many people say the America-led campaign against the IS lacks results to be proud of. If the Iraqi military fails in Mosul, the US might have to bring in more forces to the country. The United States has already established a division headquarters in Iraq. The Iraqi army suffered defeat from Islamic State militants in the summer of 2014. The servicemen left the equipment and ran away, no matter they had great superiority in weapons and numbers. The recent victories, like the liberation of Ramadi, against jihadists were achieved thanks to Kurdish and Shia militias, US airpower, and a small force of Iraqi special operations forces, not regular Iraqi army units. If the pattern will not change this time, then Shia forces will liberate a predominantly Sunni city. The support of Kurdish formations is crucial for the liberation of Mosul. They are expected to cut off enemy’s escape routes to the north and west of the city. Arabs and Kurds have been battling over Mosul for decades. Will Kurdish forces really go or will they retain a foothold there? Will they engage in fierce fighting for the land they will not control? Turkey is fearful that Mosul may become a part of independent Kurdish state.

The IS had a lot of time to erect fortifications. The US-led coalition’s strikes were not intensive enough to hinder the effort. During the battle for Ramadi the city suffered great damage. This time it could be worse. And after having won, the US will face the very same problem it has failed to tackle effectively since 2003 – the mission of nation-building in Iraq divided along sectarian lines is a great challenge. America often wins wars and fails to win peace. Iraq will descend into a renewed cycle of civil war, as before, if the US does not come up with plans to establish peace and make Sunni Iraqis feel safe. The liberation of Mosul makes no sense if the IS militants find refuge in Syria. Actually, the offensive spans Syria and western Iraq to target the militants-held cities of Mosul and Raqqa – the unofficial IS capital. It means large chunks of land in Syria will become the main battlefields. This operation will have to be coordinated with Russia. There is also great probability that the Russia-supported Syrian forces will launch an operation to liberate Raqqa before the US coalition. In either case, the coordination of actions between Russia and the US is a logical, and evidently, unavoidable step.

There has been much ado about the final offensive against the IS militants, but the US-led forces are only slowly itching towards the urban area. No real fighting has started so far, only discussions and visits. It takes just a few hours for US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces troops to get to Mosul. There was also much talk about advance to Raqqa – nothing actually happened. Except for a few veterans of Saddam Hussein’s army, which the US disbanded, IS militants have no professional military training, they are terrorists, not field warriors. They have no armor, artillery, aviation or anti-aircraft systems – only small arms and light weapons. The IS has no logistics, electronic warfare systems, their communications are unprotected. But the powerful US-led coalition of around 60 countries continues to tip-toe. The liberation of Ramadi, a relatively small Iraqi city, is the only tangible result so far. There is nothing to brag about. An Atlantic Council report issued in late February warns of a grave «lack of progress» in the Alliance’s plans to reinforce itself.

For comparison it took only 18 days for Russia-supported Syrian forces to retake Palmyra in March. They liberated al-Qaryatayn in one month (3 March – 3 April, 2016). The US operation against the IS began in June 2014. The Russian operation in Syria was launched in late September, 2015. Russia had only 30-50 aircraft compared to approximately 200 planes of the US–led coalition. Russian aircraft had, at times, carried out more sorties a day than the US-led coalition has done in a month. The Russian navy has launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea at the distance of 900 miles.

«The Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely,» Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in Senate testimony.

In an attempt to match Russia’s achievements, the US had to send nuclear-capable strategic bombers to the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

The operations against terrorists must be rapid and unexpected. Efficiency and resoluteness are the crucial factors for success. One cannot defeat the IS getting ready for relatively small-scale operations for months, or even years. The Mosul offensive had been prepared for since 2015 before the «active phase» was announced on March 24, 2016. About a month has passed without real shooting starting. Perhaps, it would be useful for US planners to take a page out of Russia’s book to enhance efficiency of their anti-IS effort.